Friday, December 19, 2014

the last book I read

The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page by GB Edwards.

Ebenezer Le Page is an irascible old codger, as he himself tells us in the opening couple of paragraphs. A proud Guernseyman, he's only ever left the island once, to take a boat trip to Jersey to watch the football, and hasn't felt any need to do so ever again, since he's perfectly happy in his stone cottage, occasionally walking into town to go to the shops and otherwise pottering in his garden, writing down his memories in a series of notebooks and generally bemoaning modern life and so-called "progress".

Born at the tail-end of the 19th century (just like Edwards, for whom Ebenezer is clearly a thinly-disguised authorial alter ego), Ebenezer has lived through some changes, not least two world wars. Fortunate enough not to get called up in time to fight in the first, Ebenezer gets unavoidably caught up in the second when the Channel Islands get invaded and occupied by German forces.

He is a mainly solitary, self-sufficient, pragmatic sort of bloke, so he's able to rub along all right with the occupiers, even striking up a sort of friendship with a taciturn German called Otto who accompanies him on the occasional fishing expedition. That's not to say that he's above a little mischief-making, nor indeed some anti-German involvement of a more serious nature when while on a night-time walk he encounters a German soldier sexually assaulting a young boy and beats him to death with a rock.

Ebenezer never marries, despite the odd dalliance with various local girls. There are a couple of main reasons for this, most notably his general self-reliance and prickliness, and the close view he gets of the various disastrous marriages embarked upon by his contemporaries. There's his best friend Jim Mahy, trapped into a miserable marriage with a local girl who then abandons him and takes their two children away, leaving him to head off to World War I and be killed in the trenches, and his cousin Raymond, almost certainly a repressed homosexual, who dallies with being a clergyman but eventually marries a local girl, Christine, with predictably disastrous results and eventually gets killed by a land mine during World War II.

The other main reason for Ebenezer's long bachelorhood is his relationship with Liza Quéripel, clearly the only woman he ever really loves, but who is such a similar spiky and independent character that they can never stop arguing for long enough to acknowledge their feelings for each other. After their brief, broken courtship when they are both young, Liza goes off and has a couple of kids by a couple of men, bunks up with a few Nazis during the war to keep the wolf from the door and then settles into a dotage of eccentric witchy solitude at the other end of the island.

One of the things that Ebenezer's solitude means is that he's not a big spender of money, and so he's got a bit of a hoard of cash, stored old-school style under various bits of furniture, up the chimney and buried in the garden. Conscious of his own advancing years, he decides that he wants to leave it to someone deserving and sets off round the island on a visiting tour of various nth cousins, all of whom disappoint him in some way with their laziness, stupidity, and embrace of modern ideas like the motor car, feminism or the television set.

Eventually, unexpectedly, Ebenezer strikes up a friendship with reformed hooligan and aspiring artist Neville Falla, and his girlfriend Adele. Recognising in Neville some aspects of his own personality - ruthless honesty, self-reliance, aversion to authority - Ebenezer resolves to make him his sole beneficiary and hurries to get the legal paperwork sorted out before he pops off. Ebenezer seems prepared to forgive Neville his modern obsessions like owning a car, and indeed during a jaunt round the island in Neville's car they find themselves paying a visit to Liza Quéripel's house, where not only are Liza and Ebenezer belatedly reconciled, but after a bit of questioning about Neville and Adele's respective parentage it becomes clear that perhaps their unrequited (and, we're invited to infer, never consummated) love may live on after their deaths in some way.

This is another book that's been knocking around on my bookshelves for 20-odd years since I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop some time in the 1990s. I'm not sure why it's taken so long to get around to reading it; I can only assume that I thought it'd be a struggle to get through. I couldn't have been more wrong, as it happens, as it's extremely easy to read. Ebenezer, almost despite himself, is a tremendously engaging central character and the scenes of island life are convincingly drawn, hardly surprisingly since Ebenezer's lifespan and origins mirror Gerald Edwards' own. Edwards died in 1976, having spent the last few years of his life getting his manuscript (i.e. this novel) rejected by a series of publishers, and it was only five years after his death, in 1981, that The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page was first published.

There are couple of odd parallels with another book published in the early 1980s: John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces. Both authors laboured with their respective books for years and endured countless rejections from publishers, both died with their novels still unpublished and it was only some years later that they eventually saw the light of day, to instant and enduring critical acclaim. And rightly so in both cases, because they're both excellent, in widely differing ways.

Anyway, it's always nice to be pleasantly surprised by a novel, and while I wasn't expecting The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page to be rubbish (otherwise I wouldn't have bought it in the first place, let alone started reading it) it comfortably exceeded my expectations, and I recommend it. You might say: well, the ending is a bit convenient and implausible, and I'd agree, but by the time you've got there you've built up enough affection for Ebenezer and Liza not to begrudge them a bit of happiness, even if it's right at the end of their lives (within a few hours of it, actually, in Ebenezer's case).

This is the second book in this list to feature the wartime German occupation of the Channel Islands (and indeed Guernsey specifically) as a prominent plot point, the other one being Island Madness which I read almost exactly seven years ago, and which features it as the prominent plot point. It's also (by my hasty calculation, anyway) the fifth posthumously-published book on the list after Notice by Heather Lewis and all three of the Stieg Larssons. 

The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page has been adapted for radio and theatre a couple of times, but never filmed, which means this article must be satirical, which is a pity, because it sounds freakin' awesome.

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